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6 Alcohol Rehab Centers Close in Probe

June 20, 1998|SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of nearly a dozen suspicious deaths, six unlicensed Los Angeles County alcohol rehabilitation centers suspected of force-feeding patients liquor to kill their desire to drink have been shut down or voluntarily closed their doors, officials said Friday.

The closures came after inspections by law enforcement and health officials investigating reports that the organizations were masquerading as Spanish-language Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but were in fact running 24-hour live-in facilities where patients may have been held against their will. Former patients at some of the facilities have described treatment rooms infested with rats and cockroaches and furnished with urine- and vomit-stained mattresses.

The closures account for all of the known 24-hour facilities suspected of practicing the so-called "aversion therapy" method in which patients are forced to drink in order to develop a distaste for alcohol.

Four of the facilities were issued cease and desist orders, forbidding the alleged illegal activities, said Fred Leaf, chief of compliance and contracts with the county Department of Health Services. Two of the facilities closed on their own, Leaf said.

Among the facilities closed were Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza in North Hollywood and Grupo Vida Nueva Alcoholicos Anonimos near downtown. Prosecutors have brought criminal charges of manslaughter against seven members of the two groups based on the deaths of two men, both allegedly tied up and force-fed alcohol before they died.

"We feel a lot more comfortable that these particular facilities are now closed, considering the treatment methods they are suspected of practicing," Leaf said.

Investigators, members of a multi-agency task force, now plan to inspect the meeting sites of several dozen more organizations that use the Grupo Alcoholicos Anonimos name but do not appear to be open 24 hours.

The task force is expected to report to the county Board of Supervisors with recommendations within two weeks.

An additional benefit of the enforcement action, Leaf said, is that a group of about 10 men claiming an affiliation with the groups has requested a meeting with officials next week to discuss obtaining the proper licenses and permits for the facilities.

"Hopefully, they'll give us some insight into what these programs are all about," Leaf said.

He said the four men arrested in connection with the death last month at Grupo Liberacion y Fortaleza have been cooperative with investigators.

"They have been very candid," Leaf said. "They are totally unashamed of what they've done because in fact they believe they were trying to help these individuals."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles court officials have distributed a list of all 57 suspect facilities to courthouses systemwide. Court clerks have been instructed to provide defendants sentenced to alcohol treatment with a copy of the list and a health department advisory counseling them against visiting any of the sites under investigation.

Court officials were criticized at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting for not knowing that some defendants sentenced to counseling were being referred to some of the facilities in question.

In a June 17 memo to the supervisors, Municipal Court Presiding Judge Veronica S. McBeth said none of the 57 facilities under investigation appear on the court's approved programs for defendants convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol.

However, in non-drunk-driving cases, McBeth wrote, "It is possible defendants sentenced by the court could seek treatment at these unlicensed facilities. . . . There is no approved referral list for non-DUI alcohol counseling programs or (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings."

Authorities are investigating 11 suspicious deaths linked to alcohol rehab centers across Los Angeles County, including the two against which charges have been filed. The other cases, most of which did not initially appear suspicious, are being reexamined by detectives and coroner's investigators.

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